In late 2006, Ford Motor Co. designers were asked to halt their mild refreshening work on the auto maker's stalwart F-150 pickup.

The fullsize pickup market was heating up, and upstarts such as Toyota Motor Corp. and its all-new Tundra were upping the ante.

Chrysler (Dodge) was doing a new truck, and the Tundra was coming,” says Patrick Schiavone, design director-Ford trucks and SUVs. “We had to be absolutely competitive and defend our turf. It was the best decision we ever made.”

The word came down from the executive ranks to craft a new F-150, something that would allow Ford to retain the segment leadership it has enjoyed for 31 years.

More than 1,000 engineers, designers, researchers and other personnel were brought together to forge the '09 pickup.

Responsibility for the redesign inside and out fell to Schiavone.

In a studio large enough to house three normal-size vehicle programs, Schiavone and his team went to work.

The team largely was unchanged since the F-150's '04 redesign, making his job easier. “That's important, because these bunch of guys lived it once and understand it better.”

The first order of business was to reach out to current F-150 owners to gauge their likes and dislikes.

The design team went to homes and job sites and conducted focus groups and research events, Schiavone says.

“We needed to talk with customers to get inside their heads,” he says. “If I would've listened to them directly, we wouldn't have changed anything. So we listened to what Ford trucks were used for and used that as a springboard.”

That caused a bit of a conundrum, Schiavone says.

While many owners said, “Don't ruin my truck,” they noted the new F-150 should be “tough and rugged with American styling that looks like a Ford.”

F-150 owners love their trucks the “way cowboys love their horse,” Schiavone says.

Early on, the team decided to borrow some cues from the F-Series Super Duty, successfully redesigned for '08.

There was a fine line to be straddled, however, as Schiavone didn't want the new F-150 to look like a shrunken Super Duty.

The Super Duty's signature “Powerdome” hood was lifted for the F-150, as was its wraparound headlamps and large, semi-like grille, but overall the '09 F-150 is “a little bit more civilized,” Schiavone notes.

Another challenge facing the design team was creating an unprecedented number of F-150 variants, including three cab styles, four box options and seven trim levels, resulting in 35 different configurations.

Particularly intriguing to Schiavone was the addition of the Platinum Series, which was to be the most luxurious F-150 ever built.

Although the Lincoln Mark LT luxury pickup inspired some of the Platinum edition styling, Schiavone wanted the truck to look more Ford than Lincoln.

The Platinum also was influenced by the Super Chief concept introduced at the 2006 North American International Auto Show and boasts a unique chrome grille with egg-crate mesh; monotone paint; a brushed metal tailgate applique; 20-in. 16-spoke wheels; power-deployable running boards; and scads of interior upgrades, including 10-way power captain's chairs and some of the finest woods, metals and leathers ever found in a Ford vehicle.

“It was really a labor of love,” Schiavone says, describing the Platinum edition as a truck he could drive. “It's a little slicker, a little more big-city.”

While the Platinum represents the best of the best, all '09 F-150 trim levels received interior upgrades.

Ford designers paid particular attention to so-called “smart” features, while at the same time piling up technology improvements.

The truck has more than 30 storage areas, including a bin atop the instrument panel. Ford's new in-vehicle multimedia system, Sync, also is available, as is Sirius Travel Link, a next-generation navigation system originally unveiled on the Lincoln MKS sedan at the L.A. auto show.

Developed in conjunction with Sirius Satellite Radio, Travel Link provides up-to-the-minute information on current gas prices, traffic, coast-to-coast weather conditions, sports scores and movie listings.

Travel Link also offers a “jukebox” feature, which allows for up to 2,400 songs to be stored on an internal hard drive.

Schiavone says while he and his team critiqued the competition, it played little into the final design of the '09 F-150.

“We are the ones everybody looks at, and leaders lead. So you ended up looking more at yourself,” he says, noting that designing a vehicle of the F-150's magnitude is intimidating but liberating.

“In some ways, it helps you stretch out a little bit more. You don't want to fall back on your laurels,” he says. It “forces us to be more risky than normal, which I like.”

As Schiavone and his team labored away at the F-150 design, Chief Engineer Matt O'Leary and his group went to work on engineering the new truck.

Like Schiavone, O'Leary turned to Ford customers for tips on improving the brawny pickup.

“We went to their ranches, their job sites and their homes, making sure we crafted features that would improve their ownership experiences and, really, their lives,” he says.

While the '09 F-150 rides on the same platform as its predecessor, engineers went to considerable lengths to strengthen and improve it, even though the current F-150 has the strongest frame in the sector.

“It would have been easy for us to say, ‘All right, we've got the strongest frame and let's leave it at that.’ That's not going to happen,” says Todd Eckert, marketing manager-trucks.

Engineers increased the application of high-strength steel and reinforced the cross beams while upgrading the frame, resulting in a 10% boost in torsional rigidity, Ford says. The liberal use of high-strength steel contributed to a 100-lb. (45-kg) weight reduction vs. the '04 F-150, improving fuel economy.

The '09 F-150 includes a bevy of safety features, including side-curtain airbags; rollover mitigation; trailer-sway control; rearview-camera assist; and Ford's AdvanceTrac electronic stability enhancement system.

Noise, vibration and harshness levels also were addressed through the use of a technology called the Multi Activation Regression Simulation model, which Ford says balances different sound inputs coming into the vehicle — from the powertrain, wind and road — and blends them harmoniously.

“There are some vehicles out there that sound unbalanced. They are good for two of the three attributes — say, wind and road noise — but are pretty bad for powertrain noise,” says Mark McCarthy, Ford Truck NVH manager. “What we've done is focus less on getting each attribute as quiet as possible and work on getting all of the levels in balance.”

To reduce vibration, computer models were made to determine where to add curvature and grooves to the metal panels. In addition, more durable powertrain mounts were used to curb vibration, especially at idle.

Underhood, the '09 F-150 will offer three engine choices: a 5.4L, 3-valve Triton V-8; 4.6L, 3-valve V-8; and 4.6L, 2-valve V-8.

Ford has yet to release technical specifications on the new truck, but the auto maker promises it will retain its best-in-class towing and payload capacity.

The engines will be mated to either a 4-speed or 6-speed automatic transmission.

Ford says the V-8-exclusive lineup delivers a fleet-average 1-mpg (0.4-km/L) improvement in fuel economy vs. the outgoing F-Series.

In 2010, the F-150 will be available with a diesel engine and EcoBoost, which through the use of direct injection and turbo-charging can increase the power of a small-displacement engine.

The truck will be produced at Ford's Dearborn, MI, and Kansas City, MO, plants and is slated to arrive at dealerships this fall.